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Last Updated: Monday, 18 August, 2003, 12:36 GMT 13:36 UK
Iraqi women struggle to be heard

By Kim Ghattas
BBC, Baghdad

The BBC's Kim Ghattas reports on the impact the continuing insecurity in post-war Iraq is having on women in the country.

Iraqi women queuing for food
For some, food and water are the most important things
At a concert in post-war, post-Saddam Iraq, the first act is an all-woman band, twenty-two of them, of all ages, backgrounds and religions.

Dressed in white shirts and black skirts, some are veiled and some are not.

They are the Ishtar band and it is their first public concert ever.

The audience's reaction takes them by surprise; they never thought they would be applauded with so much enthusiasm; and yet they were, not only for their music, but also their courage.

Nada Jassem is the flute player.

"We wanted Iraq and the world to know that Iraqi women are educated, talented, smart and proud, we are not nothing, we are half of Iraqi society.

"We risked our lives rehearsing for this concert. Male relatives drove us to and from the concert hall. If the Islamists see me walking on the streets with my flute, they could kill me.

"It was hard but we will not give up, we still don't know what the future holds for us but we put our lives in the hands of God."

Covering up

Despite the hardships and lack of security, Iraqi women are certainly not giving up.

Iraq women below a portrait of Saddam Hussein
Some Iraqi women still wear the veil, often out of fear
There have been women's conferences organised, and new NGO's launched.

At the Communist Party headquarters, members of the party's women's league are discussing the next issue of their newly launched newspaper, Equality.

On every page of the paper is the league's current slogan: "No to the compulsory veil".

Sahera Zouhair, a 31-year-old Sunni, says this is the slogan of every woman in Iraq today.

"Things are a lot worse now, there's no security, women cannot go out, cannot express themselves, the veil has become compulsory for Muslims and Christians.

"If you walk on the street without a veil now you can get killed.

"I was insulted just standing on my balcony because my hair was showing.

People here say they don't expect the coalition authorities to make women's rights a priority, but if things are to change for women in Iraq, women will have to work alongside men to effect real change and men will definitely have to be on board.

That is why at a recent conference organised by the newly launched Movement for the Renaissance of Iraqi Women, tribal chiefs were invited to attend.

But no-one seemed convinced by the men's promises to back women's rights, even though, in the 1950s, Iraqi women were pioneers, educated and worldly.

Basic worries

Lina Abboud is a member of the Movement for the Renaissance of Iraqi Women.

Iraqi woman surfing the Net
Many Iraqi women want more freedom and independence
She is a gynaecologist and at 28-years-old has her own clinic in a poor neighbourhood of Baghdad.

She says women who come to her are too busy worrying about the quality of the water their children drink and the best way to keep food from rotting in the heat, to think about women's empowerment.

"We have lots of work to do, especially the changing of the mentality of simple women.

"We educated women should play this role to make them realise their important role. It will take a long time but at least we have the hope that it will change because Saddam has gone and everything will be alright from now on"

Afraid to go out

Which is why Myriam, a 23-year-old Christian, refuses to leave her country, even now when she faces insults on the street for wearing tight jeans and t-shirts.

Before the war she was never allowed out in the evenings.

Now she still cannot go out in the evening, but for different reasons.

"These men from the mukhabarat [Saddam Hussein's secret police] or from the ruling families, they could see you on the street and decide they wanted you, they would say "I want this girl" and that's it.

"To tell you the truth before it was not secure and now it's the same, we can't go out.

"But the war itself is a chance to take our rights, and take our position here.

"We have to fight for our rights because no-one is going to come and say, 'hey, here are your rights, this is for you'. Nothing comes easy."


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